A specter is haunting Bologna. The 28th annual Bologna Ritrovato kicked off on June 28, the 100-year anniversary of the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by a Serbian nationalist. The legacies of the Great War of the 20th century marked the curating for a retrospective film festival opening onto the 21st. The “Cento Anni Fa” program—an entire retrospective dedicated to showing films made one century ago—has always been a special attraction at the Ritrovato. One hundred years ago, film production trends were shifting from the single-reel short films of early cinema to multi-reel serials and narrative features. This year, given the pointed historical significance of 1914, “100 years ago” became a broader thematic focus of the 2014 festival, in addition to an archival treasure trove for the “Cento Anni Fa” program.
Indeed, the curating options both of and about 1914—a cinematic world on the precipice of industrial self-destruction—inflected a century’s worth of programming, from Turkish travelogues from the 1910s, and pacifist melodramas like Lay Down Your Arms! (Holger-Madsen, 1914), to an entire program of WWII films thematizing Hitler impersonators. Forget The Great Dictator or To Be or Not to Be, and open your eyes to The Strange Death of Adolf Hitler (James P. Hogan, 1943), My Crimes After Mein Kampf (Alexandre Ryder, 1940), and The New Adventures of Schweik (Sergei Yutkevich, 1943). Of course, retrospective film curating wasn’t the only site of a fraught internationalism on display at the festival. Is irony an appropriate descriptor for the scene of festival masses shirking a tearjerker about the universal evils of war in order to rally around a television screen at a local Irish pub and scream their hearts out for France and Germany to humiliate their national enemies at football?
Not including the supplemental pub TV screens during World Cup matches, the Ritrovato played over 600 films on up to five or six parallel screens over the course of eight days. During the daytime, there were four primary venues: the Arlecchino, erected in the 1960s with a widescreen ideal for Cinemascope projection (this year, the 1960s Polish New Wave and 1950s Indian Golden Age programs); the Cinema Jolly, where many of the director retrospectives (William Wellman, Riccardo Freda) took place; and two smaller screens at the Cinema Lumière. In the sala Mastroianni, silent films from 100 years ago flickered with live piano accompaniment by virtuosos like Donald Sosin, Stephen Horne, Maud Nelissen, John Sweeney, and Gabriel Thibaudeau. Across the hallway, in the Sala Scorcese, feature-length silent films and early talkies (the Werner Hoechbaum and “Cinema Against Hitler” programs) ran parallel to the piano-hopping, 1914 cinema playing in the Sala Mastroianni. Screenings inside the Mastrioanni and Scorcese theaters rarely had subtitles; instead, foreign-language viewers channel live translations through an audio headset—which works well for silent films with intertitles, such as Germaine Dulac’s visually poetic Death of the Sun (1922), and less well for fast-paced, Austrian-dialect, German talkies such as Werner Hochbaum’s Suburban Cabaret (1933).
In addition to these four main screening venues, other venues featured talks and workshops about everything from the ethics of digital film restoration, to the logistics of 21st-century silent-film production (The Artist’s director and lead actress were in attendance for part of the week), to archiving the very idea of cinema. The pièce de resistance of the curating happened every night at 21:45, just after the sun set, when a crowd-pleaser attraction (such as Rebel Without a Cause, The Merry Widow, or Hard Day’s Night) would play on a giant, outdoor screen in the Piazza Maggiore. To help offset the mobs at Bologna’s center, festival organizers Peter von Bagh, Guy Borlée, and Gian Luca Farinelli have curated rival night-time screenings. This year, these included a spectacular playing of the three-hour silent epic Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914) at the Teatro Comunale, as well as outdoor, carbon-arc projections of Princesse Mandane (Dulac, 1928) and Blue Blood (Nino Oxilia, 1914) on the Piazzetta Pasolini, the scenic courtyard in front of the Cinema Lumière.
The festival did feel a bit overrun this year, with upward of 2,000 film enthusiasts in attendance. In previous years, maybe a few of the glitzy, star-studded events—such as Agnès Varda last summer introducing a new restoration of her 1955 directorial debut, La Pointe Courte—would be standing room only. This year, I found it harder to anticipate which screenings would fill the house. I was very surprised when I was shut out of a Tuesday morning screening of Louis Feuillade’s 1913 silent-film crime caper Fantômas, which is already available on DVD. In fact, my tendency to favor early silent films and rediscovered or restored historical oddities over canonical post-war classics only added to my plight: I viewed many a film from a side-aisle floor or the standing room in the back of the theater. While the festival’s poster film, Vittorio De Sica’s classic Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow from 1963, yielded dozens of empty seats, a recent rediscovery and restoration of an otherwise unknown work would pack the theater to capacity. A case in point was 1934’s Hitler’s Reign of Terror, a Vanderbilt heir’s compilation of 1930s documentary footage from his personal trip to Germany—laced with hokey reenactments of his political interviews featuring amateur impersonations of Hitler and the Crown Prince of Hohenzollern. This film clearly didn’t draw mass crowds for its production values or A-list celebrity, but for its archival meta-history. (See the New Yorker’s write-up about this film.) In other words, not only is the cat out of the bag (old movies are fun, and Bologna is pleasant), but mushrooming attendance has only augmented a general appreciation for the tremendous archival and curatorial labors sustaining the festival.
Identity, Variety, and Internationalism
In a festival dedicated to unearthing forgotten fragments of film history, the identity politics of whose work gets preserved, restored, and re-circulated is always a major point of consideration. Specific threads on early Japanese talkies, post-1948 Indian social-protest films, and the geopolitical diversity of the fallen Ottoman Empire tempered the Ritrovato’s otherwise Western-centric tendencies. One program title, “India’s Endangered Classics,” made explicit the links between South Asian histories of political instability and the contingency of which film histories get made visible in the archival festival circuit.
Nations gained sovereignty as empires disbanded. Social-realist works like Bimal Roy’s Bengali Do Bigha Zamin (1953) and Mehboob Khan’s Hindi Mother India (1957) reflect on the aftermath of India’s independence from the British and the partition of the subcontinent: the economic and social challenges of national self-definition in a linguistically and geographically diverse terrain. Meanwhile, “Views of the Ottoman Empire, 1896-1914” provoked controversy for precisely the reasons that the Indian program circumvented further criticism and scrutiny. The Ottoman Empire, which once encompassed the Balkans, the Middle East, North Africa, and much of Central Asia, incited meta-archival concerns due to its linguistic heterogeneity (problems involving intertitle circulation) and the cultural challenges of archiving a multi-national Empire now 100 years fallen.
One of the program’s curators, Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi, explained her decision not as an attempt to compartmentalize the Ottoman Empire, but to grapple with the ambiguity and multiplicity of a supra-national terrain from a period in film history that we otherwise tend to regard in starkly nationalist terms. Kaynakçi and Mariann Lewinsky offset this geopolitical overspill with the entertaining variety of their curating: compiling newsreel and travelogue footage with comedic oddities like The Clown and the Pasha (Georges Monca, 1911), a precursor to Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, according to Lewinsky, in which a neurotic Egyptian dignitary sustains his infatuation with a cross-dressing circus ballerina even after the removal of “her” wig. “Nobody’s perfect” might have been a fitting subtitle for “Views of the Ottoman Empire.”
Speaking of gender politics, French surrealist director Germaine Dulac (subject of Tami William’s highly anticipated new book, Germaine Dulac: A Cinema of Sensations) and German comedienne Rosa Porten (actress Henny Porten’s older sister) helped to balance the patriarchy endemic to many auteur-centered film retrospectives. In past years, the Ritrovato has spotlighted works by female directors including Lois Weber, Alice Guy Blaché, Agnès Varda, and Olga Preobrazhenskaya. Despite the significant stylistic differences between Dulac’s elliptical film poetry and Porten’s situational screwball comedy, the thematic similarities were striking. Across these two programs, female protagonists struggled to negotiate the balance between career aspirations and domestic obligations in their modern industrial societies.